May 29, 2003
Alaska Legislature Stands Up for Civil Liberties
BUZZFLASH READER COMMENTARY
Here's some sunshine for a rainy political season: on the last afternoon of the session, May 21, the Alaska State House adopted House Joint Resolution 22 by a 37-1 vote. HJR 22 puts Alaska on record along with the State of Hawaii and 112 cities and counties (including five in Alaska) as defenders of our civil liberties against encroachments by the "USA PATRIOT Act" (so named because it makes US patriots shake their heads in disbelief).
The day before, the Alaska State Senate had passed the resolution unanimously, with 12 cross-sponsors, some of them piling on at the time of the vote.
So. You ask: HOW did this happen??? Is Alaska some kind of HOTBED OF LIBERALS?? How can I make it happen in MY STATE, where we have a DIFFICULT legislature?
I'm here to say you can do it too. The Alaska Legislature is Republican -- heavily so. The Senate has only eight Democrats now (out of twenty members), and the House has thirteen (out of a possible forty). We recently elected a Republican governor by a substantial majority. Our views tend towards resource development and we have a strong military strain. Our only Representative in the U.S. House, Don Young, has animal heads mounted on the walls of his D.C. office and no patience for what he calls "environmental extremists."
But at the moment I am, much to my own surprise, quite proud of Mr. Young. Part of why the resolution passed so overwhelmingly was because it had Young's backing. He has said that the "PATRIOT Act" was the "worst act we ever passed," and he plans to introduce legislation to repair it. He has also signed on as one of 105 co-sponsors of Vermont Congressman Bernie Sander's "Freedom to Read Protection Act," legislation which would exempt libraries and booksellers from provisions of the "PATRIOT Act" that allow federal agents to search their records without a traditional search warrant.
I am also proud of our local legislators -- they worked across the aisle on this in a way that was refreshing, in comparison to the way they weren't working together on much else. (You should see our budget this year. Never mind, don't look, it's too embarrassing.)
HJR 22 was co-sponsored in the House by David Guttenberg, a freshman Democrat from Fairbanks; and John Coghill from North Pole, the Majority Leader -- you could just see in the smiles of the staff aides how pleased they were to be working together on something that fired up genuine enthusiasm. And on the Senate side the sponsor was Johnny Ellis, whose aide, an old friend, was my best contact on what was happening.
Alaska has a strong libertarian, iconoclastic strain. The Alaska Independence Party is no longer as influential as it once was, but many people came to Alaska to get away from the crowds, they are fishermen and miners and know how to build cabins and deal with sub-zero temperatures. Many of them are on the right side of the spectrum, but you also have a hearty contingent of aging hippies. The Libertarian Party is strong here, so is the Green Party; most Alaskans consider themselves Independents.
So this is not a group of people willing to give up its liberties easily. But neither are the people in your state, once they understand the issues. What this takes really is spadework and patience. In Juneau where I currently live, a group of people who were already meeting weekly because of opposition to the war in Iraq learned that the Fairbanks City Council had passed a resolution and began working with them, and with the State ACLU, to get the Juneau Borough Assembly to adopt one.
The local newspaper, the Juneau Empire, ran an editorial against the resolution, and for a while -- I won't get into the local politics too far here -- but it looked as if opposition was building.
However, we have a sympathetic mayor who helped us navigate through some rocky political shoals. A subcommittee was formed; the education process continued; we held a forum. Some compromises were made in the wording. And then, on a lovely evening in Alaska's capital city, April 28, 2003, the Juneau Borough Assembly passed a resolution defending the Bill of Rights.
These resolutions are fun; you get the chance to make impassioned speeches and write eloquent letters. The politicians like it too for the same reason; it reminds them why they went into public life to begin with. You can hear the actual assembly meeting here: go to Juneau Borough Assembly April 28. You might want to skip past the proposal to make the primrose Juneau's official flower and the traffic problems, and go directly to the Juneau citizens speaking out on liberty. It's an eloquent group, ranging from a high school student talking about Orwell's 1984, to a veteran saying that he wants men and women 30 years from now to have the same right to stand up before a local assembly as we do today.
If you want more inspiring speeches from Alaska, listen to the hearing on HJR22 in the House State Affairs Committee on streaming video, here: look for May 6.
As you work on your resolutions, you'll find yourself combing over the wording. Fairbanks' is a good model, stronger than Juneau's. Our legislature's version is strong too. It is now the official policy of the State of Alaska to "oppose any portion of the USA PATRIOT Act that would violate the rights and liberties guaranteed equally under the state and federal constitutions," and no agency of the State of Alaska, "in the absence of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity under Alaska State law," may cooperate with an investigation or detention, or share intelligence about any person's or organization's library records, medical records, financial records, etc. And the resolution "implores" -- earlier language said merely "urges" -- the U.S. Congress to "correct provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act and other measures that infringe on civil liberties," and "opposes any pending and future federal legislation to the extent that it infringes on Americans' civil rights and liberties."
So how can you make this happen in your state? Start locally. Get a group going. You'll find many ideas for wording and approaches at the Bill of Rights Defense Committee's site. Find a sympathetic assemblyman; talk to your state reps over the summer recess. This is really and truly a bi-partisan issue. This is the Constitution that every one of your state and federal representatives is sworn to uphold. Every town in America needs to take this up. This is -- if I might perorate one more time -- the ground we share.
A BUZZFLASH READER COMMENTARY
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